THE BRIAR PATCH

By Dinah

Author's note: My sincere thanks to everyone for the reviews. I also want to thank Blacknblue for being a marvelous beta. His observations always make me stop, think, and reconsider.

CHAPTER 21: TRIP

One quick sniff told Trip he'd just walked into an infirmary. Funny, he thought as his eyes remained locked on Archer, how all sickbays smelled pretty much the same. At least if things didn't go well he wouldn't have to go far to get patched up.

The captain had yet to move a muscle. That didn't bode well. Sighing, Trip wondered what he'd done this time. Oh well, he might as well find out sooner rather than later.

"What can I do for you, Jon?" he said as he leaned back against the doorframe and crossed his arms, unconsciously mirroring Archer's stance.

Silence.

This wasn't like the captain. If there was a problem he was usually in your face, reading you the riot act, sometimes before you even knew exactly where you'd screwed up.

The two men continued to stare at one another.

Yelling he could handle, but this silent treatment was starting to wear on Trip's nerves. Maybe for the next prod he needed to use a bigger stick.

"Look, Admiral Gardner's already pissed that you're making him wait, so why don't you just tell me what's on your mind?"

That got a reaction.

Archer dropped his arms and slowly began to walk towards Trip. The captain's jaw was clenched, muscles taut. Something was obviously bothering him, so why didn't he just spit it out? Not knowing what to expect, Trip slowly pushed himself away from the doorframe and slid his left foot forward, weight evenly distributed front and back.

When he was within arm's reach, Archer stopped and leaned forward slightly.

Here it comes, Trip thought. He's probably bent out of shape because I mouthed off to Admiral Kiran. Well that's too damn bad. I did what had to be done.

Archer finally broke the silence.

"Hit me."

Trip blinked. "What?" He wasn't sure he'd heard right.

"Go ahead and sock me." Archer pointed to his chin. "Right here."

Trip gaped at his former commanding officer. "Are you crazy?"

"Never been saner. Go ahead. It will make us both feel better."

"But I . . ."

"Look, it's not like you haven't done it before. I still have the chipped tooth to show for it." Archer pointed at one of his incisors. "I wouldn't let Phlox fix it. It's a reminder that I need to do a better job of listening." He dipped his head. "Obviously it's a failing I still haven't overcome. I kicked you when you were down, Trip, and I want you to know how sorry I am."

Taking a deep breath, Trip finally allowed his muscles to relax. "I know why you stormed out of the interrogation room that day," he said quietly. "You wanted me to open up and I wouldn't do it."

"Yeah." Archer scrubbed a hand over his mouth. "I'm not going to pretend that it didn't hurt. I didn't think we had secrets between us – at least not the kind of secrets that could have a major impact on Starfleet and Earth."

"I knew when I promised T'Pau to keep what I'd heard to myself that I'd probably regret it, but . . ."

"You're a Starfleet officer, Trip."

Even though Trip had heard that many times in the past couple months, the sense of guilt which shot through him was still the same. He knew the duties and responsibilities of a Starfleet officer. But he'd also been given an insight into the Vulcan political situation which had been granted to few men. He could see the potential damage which could be done if even a small fraction of what he knew leaked out, and his every movement, every word was being scrutinized by so many people – Human, Vulcan and Andorian alike. He understood the allegiance he owed to Earth and Starfleet, but Earth wasn't an isolated speck in the Universe anymore. The Xindi War, the Coalition and the Romulan threat had changed all that. The safety of Earth now depended on the stability of the Coalition. So what sort of allegiance did he owe to the members of that rather shaky alliance?

Why was he always faced with too many questions and not enough answers?

"I know," Trip replied, "and I'm ready to take my punishment, but it just wasn't that simple. I had other things, bigger things, to take into consideration." He looked Archer straight in the eye. "It wasn't that I didn't trust you. I wanted to tell you everything, but . . ." he raised both arms then let them drop back down to his sides. "I just couldn't."

Archer clapped a hand on Trip's shoulder. "Torok and I had a long talk. He filled me in on some of the problems you've had to face? I have a pretty good idea of what you've been up against."

Trip tilted his head questioningly. He wondered just how much Torok had told Archer. Whatever it was, it could either make his life a whole lot easier or lead to total disaster.

"You do?"

"Yes. And I have to tell you that I am a little disappointed that I didn't get an invitation to the wedding. I was looking forward to giving the bride away."

"You know about T'Pol and me?"

"Secret wedding on Mount Seleya . . . Torok officiating . . . yep."

"And you're all right with that?"

"Couldn't be happier. I just wish that the two of you were back on Enterprise."

Trip chewed on his lower lip as the implications raced through his head. "Have you told anyone else?" he asked warily.

"I told your parents. I thought they ought to know. They're going to let your brother and sister and your grandparents in on the secret. That's it. They realize the danger the two of you face if word gets out."

Suddenly Trip felt an overwhelming sense of relief, as though he'd been holding his breath for months and was finally able to fill his lungs again. Someone else knew. His parents knew. He finally had others he could confide in.

Unless they didn't approve.

"How did my parents take it?"

"They were surprised . . ."

"I bet they were."

". . . and worried – for both of you. Your dad told me he'd been expecting this for quite some time. He could tell that "that little Vulcan gal" had you wrapped around her little finger from the moment he saw the two of you together at Paxton's trial. He also knows you're pretty clueless when it comes to women, so he figured that T'Pol finally had to draw you a diagram to get you to the altar."

A smile played at the edges of Trip's mouth. "And Mom?"

"She's just upset that she missed the wedding. You and T'Pol are welcome at the Tucker homestead anytime you can get away."

Trip raised both hands to his face as he was suddenly hit by a wave of emotion. He'd been so afraid that after Lizzie's death at alien hands his parents wouldn't accept T'Pol. But now they were apparently willing to welcome her as their daughter-in-law. It was everything he had hoped for and more.

"Oh," Archer continued, "and your dad wanted me to be sure to tell you that he would appreciate it if you could avoid any more brushes with the law. Having the media camped out on their doorstep kept him from an important date with a fishing pole and a couple of catfish."

"That sounds like Dad." After taking a deep breath, Trip scrubbed his hands over his eyes. "Thanks. I couldn't tell them. I appreciate you letting them know."

"No problem."

"What about Admiral Gardner?" Trip hated to ask the question, but he knew it was only a matter of time until he and T'Pol had to make Starfleet aware of their situation."

"I figure he has enough problems right now without adding you and T'Pol to the mix. I'll figure a way to break it to him when things have calmed down a little."

"We won't allow Starfleet to split us up. We'll resign first." There was no hostility in Trip's voice; he was simply stating a fact.

Archer slowly walked over to one of the two beds in the room and leaned back against it. "You've got a lot of friends – influential friends – whether you know it or not. So has T'Pol. When the time comes, I think they'll speak up for you."

"Do you think Earth and Vulcan are ready for an inter-species couple?"

"No and neither do you or you wouldn't have been so secretive about your marriage. As far as I'm concerned, aside from a few key people, no one else needs to know."

Trip briefly entertained the idea of telling him about Admiral Kiran, but he decided against it. What would be the point?

"Thanks."

"That's what friends are for. And I am still your friend, Trip . . . or at least I want to be, very much."

Trip took a moment to consider Archer's words. "You know things can never be the same between us. Too much has happened, too many things have changed. We aren't the same people we were when we were working on the NX test program."

"Yeah, I know." It was obvious that Trip's words had stung.

"Your friendship has always meant a lot to me, Jon. More than you'll ever know. I wouldn't be out here" – he made a sweeping gesture with his hand – "without your help. And I sure as hell wouldn't have been the first chief engineer on a warp 5 vessel. But now it's time for me to stand on my own two feet."

"No more standing in the shadow of the great Jonathan Archer." It was impossible not to notice the sarcastic tone in Jon's voice.

"I guess so."

"Trust me, Trip, I don't think that's going to be a problem. I've been watching you interact with the Vulcans and what I've seen is pretty impressive. You're not the same kid who used to clean out plasma conduits for Captain Jefferies. And that's the way it should be. We all change with time – even stubborn captains who become so caught up in their own problems that they can't bother to extend a helping hand to others in trouble."

After a searching look at Archer's face, Trip walked over to the biobed and stuck out his hand. "Fair enough."

Without a moment's hesitation, Jon shook Trip's hand. "Now if we only had a couple of beers and a water polo. . ."

"Football," Trip interjected adamantly. "A football game."

"Not a chance." Archer shook his head, but he couldn't keep a smile from spreading from ear to ear. "Water polo. Best sport in the world."

"Football." Trip put his hands on his hips and grinned. He couldn't deny that he'd missed this friendly bantering back and forth. "The only water I want to see comes in a bottle for drinking purposes."

"Water polo is a man's game, not some. . ."

Suddenly the door slid open. "Sorry to break up your reunion," Malcolm said tensely, "but we have trouble brewing back on Earth. Admiral Gardner says to double time it."

Tucker and Archer exchanged a split-second glance then scrambled out the door behind Reed.

"What's going on?" Archer asked as they raced down the corridor.

"Admiral Tamura's speaking with Captain Jaracz now."

"That doesn't answer my question, Commander."

The launch bay doors opened and the men swept inside. "I think it would be best if Admiral Tamura explained, sir," Reed replied, pointing to the open hatch of the shuttle from Warsaw. "He's inside with T'Pol and Admiral Gardner."

As soon as Archer stuck his head through the open hatch, Gardner motioned him inside and pointed to a seat on one of the benches, across from T'Pol. Trip and Malcolm quickly climbed in after him.

Trip cast a questioning look at T'Pol as he sat down beside her, but she only gave her head a barely perceptible shake and pointed to Tamura.

"What about Jupiter Station," Tamura said over the radio. "Where do we stand there?"

"We were ready for the bastards," Jaracz replied. "It's still in our hands."

"And the Warp Complex outside Bozeman?"

"Ours, for now. So are our installations on Mars and the Lunar colonies."

"Keep me informed."

"Right. Jaracz out."

"What's happening?" Archer asked. "Are we under attack?"

"Yes," Admiral Gardner replied from one of the co-pilot chairs behind Tamura.

"The Romulans?"

"Worse than that."

Archer tilted his head, a perplexed look on his face. Evidently he was having trouble imagining what could possibly be worse than a Romulan attack. Personally, Trip had to agree with him.

"Will somebody please tell me what's going on?" Archer exclaimed.

"The MACOs attacked Starfleet Headquarters today at 1500 Zulu and . . ."

"What!"

Gardner held up a hand, silencing him. "They now occupying about 75 percent of the complex, including the communications center. The bastards have also seized a number of smaller Starfleet installations around the world. Captain Jaracz and a few others were able to fight their way to the auxiliary command center in the bunker below Headquarters. They're tracking the situation from there."

"And organizing a counterattack," Tamura said under his breath, as if it were more of a fervent wish than a realistic expectation.

"The MACOs?" Archer was obviously stunned. "But why? Why would they attack Starfleet?" He motioned toward his shipmates. "We've served with them on Enterprise. They've never given us any reason to think that they weren't completely loyal."

"They sure as hell have now," Gardner snapped.

"I have to get to my ship," Archer said in a strangled voice. He started to get up then abruptly sat down again and looked at Gardner. "Do I still have a ship?"

"Yes, we still control Enterprise. But not without a struggle."

"Casualties?"

"Yes, on both sides." Gardner leaned forward, elbows on knees and hands folded. "I'm afraid you're going to need a new first officer, Jon. Commander Byum was killed when they tried to take the bridge."

"Are you sure? Maybe there was some mistake."

"Jaracz was able to get through to Enterprise. Lieutenant Commander Hess has assumed command. She informed him of Byum's death. Lieutenant Mayweather was also wounded, but he'll pull through. The rest of your senior officers are okay."

Archer scrubbed a hand over his eyes. "And Columbia?"

"Columbia wasn't so lucky; the MACOs have her."

"Damn! I talked Erika into taking the MACOs on board." Archer gave his head a shake. "Why would they do this? We're all on the same side, aren't we? We're all fighting to protect Earth."

"As soon as we find him, I'll ask General Casey." Gardner ground a fist into his other hand. "Right before I put my fist through his face. That man has a lot to answer for."

"It is unfortunate that there was a change of plans," T'Pol said.

"A change of plans?" Reed said.

"For the past month," Tamura said, "I've been receiving reports from my informants that something big was being planned. Finally, three days ago a deep-cover contact at Fort Benning sent me an encrypted message that the MACOs were targeting our research and development facilities; the attack was scheduled for some time next week. We immediately beefed up security at those facilities and placed all commands on alert. Starfleet Headquarters was never mentioned. Obviously my informant either supplied me with inaccurate information, which I doubt since he has never been wrong in the past, or the MACOs got wind of the leak and moved up their timetable."

"We knew there was a lot of activity going on at the MACO base in Atlanta, Georgia," Gardner said, "but that wasn't unusual, given that they had a week of field exercises scheduled, starting yesterday. I had several Starfleet officers posted there as observers. Everything went off as planned. There was no indication that today was going to be any different. We couldn't have been more wrong."

The radio beeped and Tamura turned back to the control panel. "Tamura here, go ahead."

"This is Vice Admiral Davis. I understand you have Admiral Gardner with you."

"Yes."

"Good. This will save time. I have an update for you on the current situation."

"It's about time we heard from Starfleet Security," Gardner said. "I hope you have some good news for us, Admiral."

Trip wasn't surprised when he saw Malcolm stiffen. He knew that Admiral Barbara Davis, the Chief of Starfleet Security, was definitely not one of Reed's favorite people. Davis had a reputation for being dazzled by the potential of Starfleet's ships. One night in the Expanse, after one too many drinks, Malcolm had accused her of turning Security into little more than the small town police force. "Starships," he'd exclaimed, gesticulating wildly. "Starships are the answer to everything; they can do it all. She thinks we just stand around with our fingers up our nose while the almighty starships defend themselves." Trip had often wondered if part of Malcolm's problem with Major Hayes hadn't been due to his poorly concealed envy over the MACOs' superior training and weapons – things that the security officer felt should have been available to his personnel by right.

"We've finally managed to establish a perimeter around Starfleet Headquarters," Admiral Davis said, "but it didn't come cheap. We've suffered heavy casualties."

"When can we expect a counterattack?" Gardner asked.

"Counterattack! We're just barely holding our own. We're debriefing everyone who managed to escape from the complex, but so far we haven't discovered any chinks in the MACOs' armor. I doubt that our people inside the complex will be able to hold out for long. Not without some help, and soon."

"Have you called in all off-duty personnel?" Gardner asked.

"Yes."

"Including my people?" Tamura asked.

"The ones I could find."

"Good."

"I've ordered all security forces stationed on Starfleet ships orbiting Earth to report for duty planetside."

"Are you sure that's wise?" A frown creased Gardner's face. "We can't afford to lose any more ships."

"It shouldn't be a problem. MACOs were only stationed on NX-class ships."

"I know that, but . . ."

"I need the manpower."

"I shouldn't have to remind you, Admiral, that Starfleet Headquarters has a transporter. It's in an out-of-the-way location, but it's not something we can ignore. If the MACOs capture it and know how to make it work, they can pose a threat to every orbiting ship in the fleet. I want that order rescinded ASAP. And tighten security; I want all personnel armed until further notice."

"Aye, sir." It was obvious that Admiral Davis was not pleased. "That still leaves me critically short of manpower. I think it's about time we even the odds. Admiral Gardner, I want you to authorize a strike on all MACO bases and their training center in West Point. We have plenty of ships in orbit to do the job. I would also like to call down a strike on Starfleet Headquarters. I think we all can agree that it would be an acceptable loss. And it would prove to the MACOs that we mean business."

Tamura cut voice transmission and said, "It's too soon to take that sort of punitive action."

"Agreed," Gardner said. "We can't afford to have Davis complicate things by going off half-cocked."

"Do what you can." With a flick of his finger, Tamura reestablished voice contact.

"Invincible, Shenandoah, and Xerxes are on station, am I correct?" Gardner said.

"Yes, sir," Davis replied, "and Constellation."

"Admiral Tamura and I are heading back to Warsaw. I want to consult with the Prime Minister and Admirals Leonard and Uhlani before I take action. Under no circumstances are you to escalate the current situation without my direct orders. Is that clear, Admiral Davis?"

"Aye, sir," she replied grudgingly. "I'll tell my people to keep their heads down – not that it will do much good."

"Have you located General Casey?"

"No. Finding that son of a bitch hasn't exactly been my top priority."

"There's been no statement, no explanation for the attack?"

"Nothing, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that we'll hear something soon. The MACOs must be busting to tell everyone that Starfleet is nothing but a bunch of wusses. You think we got trouble now with the Vulcans, Andorians and the rest of that alien rabble, you just wait until this leaks out. Starfleet's going to be the laughing stock of the entire Universe!"

"Get a grip on yourself, Admiral," Gardner growled. "Push me too far and I'll relieve you of command."

"Understood, sir. Is there anything else?"

"I want regular reports."

"Every hour, on the hour. Yes, sir. Davis, out."

Gardner scrubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes then turned to Archer. "Jon, I'm sending you after Columbia. I don't care how you do it, but take control of that ship. Starfleet can't allow a weapon like that to fall into the MACOs' hands."

Archer got to his feet. "And what if the only way to stop them is to destroy the ship?"

"Do what you have to do." Gardner pointed a finger at Archer. "But only as a last resort. Now get going."

"Take Reed and Commander T'Pol with you," Tamura said. "You'll need experienced officers. They can report to me when you've completed your mission."

Archer clapped Trip on the shoulder and said, "I wish you were coming along for the ride."

"So do I," Trip replied, looking wistfully at T'Pol. Then suddenly he grabbed Archer's wrist. "Have Hess check every system on the ship carefully." He looked over at Malcolm. "Including the weapons systems. Really check them. Don't take anything for granted."

Reed sat up a little straighter. "Sabotage? You think someone might have gained access to Enterprise?"

"I don't know."

"Commander, I don't see how . . ."

"Just check." Trip ran a hand through his hair. "The Vulcans didn't think anyone could get at their ships either, but they did."

"I suggest you follow Commander Tucker advice," Tamura said. "The Vulcan ships Klomak and Psthan were, in fact, sabotaged. Given the times in which we live, if it happened to them, I see no reason why it couldn't happen to us."

"I'll make it a standing order across the fleet," Gardner said. "Now get out of here, Jon, and find Columbia."

After a quick glance in Trip's direction, T'Pol pressed her thigh against his in lieu of saying goodbye. She rose and lifted her robes just enough to allow her to step gracefully out of the hatch. Reed quickly followed her and headed for the other shuttlepod.

"I'll take good care of her, Trip," Archer murmured, and then he, too, was gone.

Admiral Tamura got up and pointed toward the pilot's chair. "Tucker get up here and get us back to Warsaw ASAP; the coordinates are already laid in."

With a sigh, Trip walked over and took his seat behind the control panel. As he started to run through the preflight checklist, he said, "I think I ought to go with them. They're bound to run into trouble and I'm the best one to . . ."

"I have another job in mind for you," Tamura said while he and Gardner moved back to one of the benches. "Something just as important. Forget about the checklist. We're good to go."

Knowing that Tamura always kept a close eye on both his manpower and equipment, Trip radioed for clearance to launch. Within seconds of receiving clearance, the shuttlepod was speeding on its way to Warsaw.

Trip wasn't happy about being left behind. He'd hoped that he would never again have to be separated from T'Pol, but that was a pipe dream. As long as they remained in Starfleet, their destinies would rest in the hands of others. He was going to hold Jonathan Archer to his word. When Columbia was back in Starfleet's hands, T'Pol had better be alive and well. If not . . . Trip took a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm down. Just do your job, Tucker, he thought. Everything will turn out all right. You'll see her again.

To be continued